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Secret Doctor Slang Runs Rampant in Hospitals

Book Reveals Derogatory Hospital Slang Used for Patients

Anyone who has spent a great deal of time in hospitals and around doctors can attest to the extensive use of medical terminology that can at times seem bewildering to the uninitiated. However, a new book reveals that hospital slang goes well beyond medically accepted terminology like “idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura” and “abnormal WBC differential.” Instead, doctors employ a language all their own to describe patients and their conditions – and it’s often derogatory.

Author reveals conflicting motivations

The author of “The Secret Language of Doctors,” Dr. Brian Goldman, claims to have written the book out of a desire to introduce the public to the unique culture of the healthcare profession. “It’s a book about what the language reveals about the culture of modern medicine and what’s inside the heads and hearts of physicians and allied health professionals, but also the problems that they face, the challenges,” said Goldman.

Although the book may very well provide a comprehensive introduction to the culture of healthcare settings, it also provides a glimpse into the often unsavory perceptions of physicians. In fact, physicians use the term “yellow submarine” to refer to patients who are obese and suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. “Cockroach” and “frequent flyer” are terms used to describe those who visit the emergency room frequently, while “status dramaticus” is used to describe patients who are believed to exaggerate their symptoms.

In fact, Goldman himself was first exposed to unpleasant hospital jargon over 30 years ago when he had finished his first night as a resident at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. The senior resident questioned Goldman about how many patients he “boxed” that shift. “Boxed” refers to patients who passed away; the term arises from the use of the word “box” for a coffin.

In an interview, Goldman apparently attempted to reconcile the repulsive use of hospital slang with his own desire to introduce healthcare culture to the public by claiming the jargon is intended as dark humor. “It’s laughing in the face of tragedy. We’re exposed to horrible things and sometimes you need to communicate it.”

Specific groups of patients are frequent targets

Regardless of the potential intentions behind the secret terminology, certain groups of patients may be more upset about the use of hospital slang than others. Goldman interviewed doctors in nurses in both the U.S. and Canada to compile information for his book. Throughout the course of his interviews, he found that certain types of patients are more frequently the target of derogatory slang.

Patients who suffer from chronic illnesses, those who are frail and/or elderly, and those with dementia are often referred to in unsavory terms. Other frequent targets for hospital slang include patients receiving treatment for a mental illness or an addiction, as well as those who are economically disadvantaged.

Additionally, expectant mothers may wish to take note that their carefully designed birth plans may be the target of ridicule by obstetricians and support staff. Pregnant women are often advised to create signed birth plans and bring them to the hospital to give birth. For example, a birth plan might include the preferences for the type of medications that may be used. However, obstetricians may refer to these birth plans sarcastically as “cesarean section consent forms.”

The exposure of the rampant use of slang by doctors may help patients to become better informed advocates for their own health. If they feel they have been the victim of bias, for example, they may be more aware of possible instances of medical errors or negligence.